Songwriter Jason Molina Restlessly Searches For The Unknown
Belching steel mill smokestacks, sooty coal mining towns, busting cities. These are images that define the working man, the simple man. They’re all well-known, easy to understand images.
But while most of the proletariat live these images by trudging along, scraping together their day’s wage, occasionally a few starry-eyed poets manage to escape from that drudgery. These poets are always restless, always searching for more. Jason Molina, the brains and voice behind Songs: Ohia is one of them.
Songs: Ohia records — of which there are at least 11 of them depending on how you count — are defined by this sense of scraping through life. They’re about simple themes: loneliness, restlessness, change. They’re lullabies for the working class.
“I don’t know where that comes from,” says Molina. “It has always followed me. I know that it has something to do with people knowing where I grew up — Northern Ohio in a steel manufacturing town, a shipbuilding town. And in southwestern Virginia, which is sort of a coal mining kind of world.
“It absolutely informed every word out of my mouth. Either in songs or just in my day to day life outside of music.”
Molina’s world is one filled with dark adventure, a scowling, nomadic existence. Despite the roadblocks of an impoverished upbringing, Molina got into fancy art school Oberlin College. He then met up with the Secretly Canadian record label as well as like-minded musical souls Will Oldham, Arab Strap, Cat Power, Steve Albini and assorted other indie record store idols.
The latest album, The Magnolia Electric Co., is the closest Molina has ever come to a populist recording. Loaded with tales of love and those same workmanlike images that inform his world, for this one Molina employs a rollicking backing band. The Bob Seger-esque result is quite unlike the darkly atmospheric Ghost Tropic, the urgent balladry of The Lioness or the Crazy Horse-inspired live album Mi Sei Apparso Come Un Fantasma.
For a man who’s obsessed with the theme of change, there’s one constant that runs through Magnolia and literally every song Songs: Ohia has ever recorded: loneliness. We’re not talking about a transparent, girl-left-me emo loneliness, but a soul-deep world-weary melancholy.
“I hadn’t consciously tried to put that in there,” says Molina. “But reflecting on the material on that record, I think it’s more working through loneliness when you’re surrounded by people who love you and respect you. Somehow this feeling that there’s something you’re not able to take away from situations where you’re physically not lonely, but somehow you feel that you’re not able to take what people are giving you.”
At the risk of playing amateur psychiatrist, that sense of incomplete has a root cause in one thing: travel. Molina’s furious touring and non-stop hopscotching from town to town have permanently infused his outlook with a sense of wanderlust. But it’s that very same wanderlust that makes each new piece of Songs: Ohia music exciting.
“I move around a lot. I’ve never been able to settle down. Maybe I’m part gypsy or something,” says Molina. “I don’t mean to be, because I certainly love places. Even if I’m there for a night or a day being on tour. Since I’ve been on tour for a long time I’ve moved quite a bit. Before I was a touring musician I really had to earn to absorb as much as I could, good or bad, from a place while I was there instead of always worrying about the final resting place. Maybe there’s not going to be a final settling down for me.”
With that, Molina then tries to count the different locations he’s lived.
“I’d say maybe 20 places easily. Twenty different towns. Right now I’m in southern Indiana, a town that’s just outside of Indianapolis called Bloomington. Indiana University is here. It’s also where Secretly Canadian is. But tomorrow morning I’m leaving for a big European tour and when I get back I’ll be moving again… to parts unknown.
Songs: Ohia “The Big Game Is Every Night”
from The Magnolia Electric Co., 10th anniversary edition
This story originally appeared in the May 2003, #146 issue of Chart Magazine.